My Top 5 Games of 2011: #4 Portal 2 (PC)

Developed: Valve
Published: Valve
Genre: First-Person Puzzle Game
Platform: 360, PS3, PC (reviewed), Mac

Like I said in a previous article, Portal was a game that I thought was impossible to make a sequel to. Valve decided to accept that challenge and proceeded to blow my freakin' mind. Portal 2 surpasses its predecessor in just about every way, including in story, the one area I didn't think was possible to improve upon. That's not to say that the first Portal is a bad game by any measure. I just want to make it clear how impressed I was with its sequel.

Portal 2 follows the continuing misfortune of Chell, who managed to escape her confinement in Aperture Laboratories, as well as destroy the malevolent artificial intelligence controlling the facility, GLaDOS, but was unfortunately recaptured soon after the conclusion of the first game and put into suspended animation for an undetermined amount of time. Beware: SPOILERS for both Portal games ahead.
Portal 2 opens with Chell waking in what appears to be a hotel room and is greeted by a computerized voice that asks her to do a few exercises before putting her back to sleep. She wakes up again after possibly years of sleep (the game isn't really clear,) finding the hotel room in disrepair and the computer voice malfunctioning. There's a knock at the door and we are then greeted by my favorite new character of 2011, Wheatley the neurotic robot eyeball, who is voiced by Ricky Gervais' best buddy Stephen Merchant in one of my favorite voice performances ever.

Wheatley tells Chell that they need to get out of the facility and disappears into a small hatch in the ceiling. The entire room seems to start moving for a moment before Wheatley lowers back into the room and gives Chell some bad news in the most clumsy way possible:
After that fun bit of news, an alarm starts to go off, prompting Wheatley to disappear back into the ceiling
and start moving the room again. As he recklessly rams the room into various things, it begins to break apart, showing the massive warehouse it's stored in and the thousands of other shipping container-like prisons that Wheatley claims have malfunctioned, killing all of their occupants as they slept. He rams the container into a wall which causes Chell to fall out and land in a familiar room:
For anyone unfamiliar with the first Portal, Chell has just landed in the prison cell where she started out in that game. Also of note is the state of disrepair that the entire facility has reached. Every surface seems to be covered in years of filth, plant life has invaded just about every room, and many areas are simply blocked off by debris. Fortunately, or unfortunately I suppose, the computerized announcer assures Chell that the Aperture Laboratories facility will still operate automatically even under apocalyptic conditions.

Chell briefly meets back up with Wheatley before falling through the floor again where she finds a portal gun. This is your puzzle solving tool in the world of Portal. The portal gun can shoot two different portals depending on what mouse button you click and stepping into one portal immediately takes you out the other. Your only limitations are that you can only have the two portals open at any time and they can only adhere to white or light grey surfaces.

You maintain your momentum as you pass through one portal to the other, so if you needed to get to a high up ledge with no portal surfaces, you could put one portal on a wall facing the ledge and the other at the bottom of the pit. When you jump into the portal in the pit you come flying out of the other one, allowing you to get to otherwise inaccessible areas.

Chell and Wheatley meet back up AGAIN a few minutes later and he leads her right to GLaDOS' chamber where he thinks there is an escape pod they can use to leave the facility.
 Wheatley jacks into the computer to try and turn the lights on, but instead he manages to make the room they're in rise up and flip on all the switches along the way. This somehow repairs GLaDOS, who was in shambles moments earlier. She smashes Wheatley, tossing him aside and drops Chell into a vent, apparently dead set on making her do more tests.

After Chell completes some of GLaDOS' puzzles, Wheatley shows back up, somehow having recovered from being crushed, and breaks Chell out of GLaDOS' "test chambers." They travel through the inner workings of the facility and quickly formulate a plan to beat her. They disable GLaDOS' neurotoxin pump and sabotage her turret production line.

They confront GLaDOS, who is now nearly helpless without her old tricks, and initiate a "core transfer" which replaces GLaDOS with Wheatley who almost immediately goes mad with power. He takes GLaDOS apart and puts her in a potato battery which somehow has the power to keep her online. GLaDOS tells Wheatley that he was designed to be a moron which prompts him to drop her and Chell down an elevator shaft.
 As they plummet to the deepest depths of the Aperture Laboratories facility, GLaDOS explains that Wheatley was designed to put a constant stream of bad ideas in her head so she would behave and now he's in control of the entire facility. They soon land about 5,000 meters underground and GLaDOS is carried off by a bird. Chell wanders through the dark caverns and soon finds a condemned building that was somehow built this far down.

She explores the ruined complex and finds a giant, foreboding blast door which houses a second Aperture Laboratories facility that was opened some time in the 50s. Chell is forced to go though the vintage test chambers which somehow still function after all these years and all the while, recordings of the founder of Aperture, Cave Johnson (Voiced by J.K. Simmons), play over the loudspeaker.

He's pretty much just as unethical as GLaDOS, and seems to have a nearly limitless fortune that he spends on a whim for seemingly pointless endeavors like buying 70 million dollars worth of moon rocks which he ground up for experiments but caused him to become deathly ill. He does mention that moon rocks make great portal surfaces which is actually a hint for much later in the game.

Chell finds GLaDOS in a bird nest and they decide to team up to stop Wheatley, who GLaDOS is certain will destroy the entire facility because of his ineptitude. She explains what Wheatley is in a bit more detail. GLaDOS had a number of "cores" attached to her that regulated her behavior in various ways. Wheatley was designed specifically to always make bad decisions so that GLaDOS would "behave." That didn't work so well because as we gradually found out in the first game, GLaDOS killed seemingly everyone in Aperture Laboratories except Chell so she could have a test subject.

Chell put the potato that is powering GLaDOS on one of the pointy bits at the barrel of her portal gun and she remains there for the rest of the game. That's right!  The main villain of the first Portal is now attached to a potato battery and is right in front of you for about half the game. I love Valve's sense of humor.

GLaDOS is inspired by an instructional poster and formulates a plan to defeat Wheatley: a paradox. She figures that Wheatley's limited mental capacity would be overwhelmed by saying a paradoxical statement to him and they begin to make their way back up to the main Aperture facility. As they near the exit of the old Aperture complex, they hear a fairly strange revelation from Cave Johnson:
Caroline was Cave Johnson's assistant. She's also GLaDOS. Yep. GLaDOS was a real person whose consciousness was put into a computer so she could run the facility. Fun times.

They arrive to find Wheatly unsuccessfully attempting to teach some bizarre and seemingly nonfunctional robots of his own creation to solve his test chambers. Chell quickly solves his simple puzzle and he appears on a nearby monitor. Since Chell is a silent protagonist, GLaDOS is reluctantly forced to make a paradoxical statement which has predictable results:

Yep, Wheatley is too dumb to understand a paradox and he forces Chell to solve his test chambers because he has an itch to have his puzzles solved. Sounds like Professor Layton. GLaDOS explains that a need to perform tests is hardwired into the Aperture mainframe that Wheatley is in charge of, and he's quickly building up an immunity to the sense of satisfaction that is programmed to trigger when one of his puzzles is solved.

Wheatley becomes increasingly frustrated as Chell solves his puzzles that he creates on the fly by ramming together (in a pretty comical fashion) puzzles designed by GLaDOS and soon begins to clumsily hint that he plans to kill them soon. As Chell enters a dark test chamber, she falls into a rather well designed trap that sends her flying onto a platform surrounded by spiked crusher plates and a pretty hilarious chapter title:
Chell easily escapes the death trap and makes her way through the depths of the facility while avoiding a few more poorly planned traps before arriving at the main core of the facility. Chell plugs GLaDOS into the mainframe and they ride the elevator up to Wheatley. They plan to put corrupted cores onto him so they can initiate another core transfer that will put GLaDOS back in charge.

Wheatley isn't going down without a fight though and Chell is forced to defend herself as Wheatley lobs bombs at her that she launches right back at him with portals. Chell puts the corrupted cores on Wheatley, one of which is a sexist, southern "adventurer" voiced by none other than Nolan North:
Once Chell puts enough corrupted cores on him, the core transfer begins but Wheatley of course objects, causing the computer to ask Chell to push the "stalemate resolution button." Wheatley attempts to block Chell from getting to the button which forces her to portal over to it using the only available surface directly under Wheatley. Chell is knocked away by an explosion and the roof of the facility collapses, revealing the moon in the night sky.

Remember when I said that Cave Johnson's statement about moon rocks making good portal surfaces was important for later? That's right! Chell shoots a portal ONTO THE MOON which causes Wheatley to sucked out into space with GLaDOS narrowly saving Chell from the same fate just as she regains control of the facility. Chell falls unconscious but soon wakes up and finds GLaDOS back to her old self.
GLaDOS tells Chell that she realized something; that the simplest answer to a problem is usually the right one and killing Chell "is hard." She lets her ride an elevator to the surface but the door opens early, revealing turrets that seem like they're about to kill Chell, but instead they play a song as the elevator continues back up. Chell soon arrives at the surface and exits, seeing the sun for the first time in years. The door slams shut behind her but it soon reopens and the infamous companion cube from the first game rolls out. After the credits, we see a rather sad scene of Wheatley floating in space who says that if he had the chance, he would tell Chell that he's sorry.
All righty. That summary was shorter than I expected. Let me reiterate something that I can't emphasize enough: I really, really believed that Portal was a game that could never have a good followup, but Valve did not disappoint me one bit with Portal 2. If I actually scored the games that I write about, Portal 2 would be a 10, and that's with the whole ten point scale in use; not the bullshit 7 to 10 scale that so many sites seem to be stuck with nowadays. Portal 2 is just that damn good. I honestly can't think of a single criticism.

Portal 2 is one of the wittiest games ever made. No qualifying statements. It simply IS.When taking screen caps for this game, I saved pictures of almost every line in the game. Seriously. Just about every line is funny in some way, even in serious scenes like the one where Wheatley takes over Aperture.

Portal 2 is not only well written but also very well designed. It's powered by the then 7 year old source engine but it still looks fantastic. Valve did a wonderful job showcasing just how versatile their engine is by including scene after scene of Aperture Laboratories falling apart in some way with tons of debris flying everywhere. Pretty amazing for an engine that can trace its roots to the Quake 1 engine.
Portal 2's gameplay is a great mix of all the things we did in the first game and a handful of awesome new ideas. The gels that are introduced about midway through the game add a really smart new way to approach puzzles, with many requiring you to put the blue "repulsion gel" in the right spot so it will bounce you across a large gap to your goal.

One complaint about the gameplay that I've heard a few times is that it was dumbed down from the first game to make the solution to puzzles more obvious. I would agree with the point that puzzles were made a bit simpler by reducing the number of portal surfaces but I feel like I had the same difficulty beating Portal 2 as I did in the first game. I'll have to beat then one after the other one of these days.

Valve always excels with their games' audio and Portal 2 is perhaps their most impressive work in that area yet. Portal 2's voice acting is the stand out of course with voice performances on par with any of Pixar's films. Ellen McLane, Stephen Merchant, and J.K. Simmons all deliver outstanding performances. Every line is read with charm and charisma. Nobody was in this just for the pay check. Stephen Merchant in particular must have done hours upon hours of voice work to record all the random lines Wheatley says during gameplay.

A good example of this is the very beginning of the game when Wheatley comes to wake Chell from her stasis. If you don't go open the door for him he'll just keep talking for like a minute. Then a few minutes later he'll ask Chell to speak for him to see if she has brain damage from being in stasis for so long. The game tells you to press space to speak (which is actually the jump button) and until you do he'll keep asking you in slightly different ways, again for a surprisingly long time. I cannot complement Mr. Merchant's diligence enough.
This screen is also a good example of how expressive Wheatley is even though all he has to work with are his robotic eyelids. Bravo, Valve!
I already put it in my top 15 games of 2011 article but it's worth posting again. Here's my favorite line in the game, said by Cave Johnson near the end of the old Aperture section. I swear you can hear J.K. Simmons on the verge of laughter for the whole line:

Video brought to us by YouTube user murpium.

The game's music is a mix of what I can only call Atari sounding techno, traditional symphonic music and ambient sounds. You really have to hear it for yourself to get it. One thing that Portal 2 does is similar to something that I pointed out in my Super Mario World article about dynamic music. In that game, whenever you ride Yoshi, the music has an extra beat added to it that disappears as soon as you get off him. Portal 2 does the same thing when you use the various puzzle solving tools like repulsion gel and aerial faith plates. It's a clever touch that I always appreciate.

One other thing that I, and probably every other fan of the first Portal, wondered before this game's release is if they would be able to write an ending song as memorable as Still Alive. While I don't find it nearly as funny as Still Alive, Portal 2's ending song, Want You Gone, is still a great song with a few funny lines. Pretty much what I expected.
The way Ellen McLane delivers this line is absolutely hilarious.
I guess I should mention that Portal 2 also includes a separate co-op campaign that I haven't played and don't plan to. I do not play online games. Period. World of Warcraft was the one exception to this rule and I finally managed to get that monkey off my back last year. It isn't a bad game by any stretch. To the contrary, it's one of my favorite games ever. I just spent way too much time playing it.

Portal 2 is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC for around $20-$30 and I'm sorry if this is no longer valid but when the game was released you would get the Steam version of the game for free if you bought the PS3 version new. You may or may not still be able to do that but it's an amazing deal if you can.

Anyway, Portal 2 is a marvelous game that I never expected to be made simply because of how good its predecessor was. In my opinion, it surpasses the first game by a small but noticeable margin. It's a game that I can recommend to pretty much anyone, even non-gamers. Seriously people. If you haven't played Portal 2 yet. DO IT! And play the first game too while your at it.

Number 3 in my top 5 games of 2011!
A first person action RPG that simplifies the gameplay of its predecessors but never disappoints.

I'll leave you with The Part Where he Kills You. I think you can guess where this one plays. It's a perfect microcosm of the game's music with a combination of symphonic music, techno, and the Atari sound I mentioned earlier. Video brought to us by YouTube user shadowoflink69th. I skipped the video ahead 40 seconds past some ambient sounds to where the song itself starts.

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